Prosecution, defence both appeal to jurors' 'common sense' in closing arguments at Chauvin murder trial

Derek Chauvin used "grossly disproportionate" force when he pinned George Floyd's neck and back with his knees, a Minneapolis court heard on on Monday, and jurors need only believe their own eyes and use common sense to render a guilty verdict against the former Minneapolis police office.

Closing arguments wrap up, jury begins deliberations

Prosecutor Steve Schleicher presented the state's closing arguments in the case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin Monday at the Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd. (Court TV/The Associated Press)

Derek Chauvin used "grossly disproportionate" force against George Floyd when he pinned the 46-year-old Black man's neck and back with his knees, a Minneapolis court heard on on Monday, and jurors need only believe their own eyes and use common sense to render a guilty verdict against the former Minneapolis police office.

"This wasn't policing; this was murder," said prosecutor Steve Schleicher as he presented the state's closing arguments at Chauvin's murder trial.

"The defendant is guilty of all three counts. All of them. And there's no excuse."

Unsurprisingly, that narrative was countered by Chauvin's lawyer, Eric Nelson, who in his closing argument said, when examining all the circumstances of Floyd's death, his client did what any "reasonable" police officer would have done after finding himself in a "dynamic" and "fluid" situation involving a large man struggling with three officers.

As for Floyd's cause of death, Nelson also said jurors need to use common sense, which includes casting a critical eye on the prosecution's rejection of potential contributing factors other than Chauvin's actions.

It would be "nonsense to suggest that none of these other factors had any role. That is not reasonable," Nelson said.

Prosecution says Floyd died from lack of oxygen

The jury began deliberating after the closing arguments. Chauvin is on trial on charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in connection with Floyd's death on May 25, 2020. 

Floyd died after Chauvin, who is white, pressed a knee on the back of his neck and back for about nine minutes as two other officers held him face down on the pavement while he was handcuffed. He had been detained outside a convenience store after being suspected of paying with a counterfeit bill.

The outcome of the high-profile trial is being closely watched. Video of Floyd's arrest, captured by a bystander, prompted widespread outrage, setting off protests over race and police brutality across the U.S. and around the world.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution has argued Chauvin used excessive force and killed Floyd by cutting off his oxygen. 

But the defence argues it was a combination of Floyd's underlying medical conditions, drug use and adrenaline flowing through his system that ultimately killed him.

Defence attorney Eric Nelson gives his closing arguments Monday. The jury is now deliberating the case. (Court TV/The Associated Press)

'Believe your eyes'

On Monday, the prosecution told the jurors that by convicting Chauvin, they will be declaring the force he used against Floyd was unreasonable, excessive and grossly disproportionate.

"This case is exactly what you thought when you saw that video. It is exactly that. You can believe your eyes," Schleicher said. 

"It's what you felt in your gut. It's what you now know in your heart." 

Schleicher repeatedly drew attention to the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin pressed his knees into the neck and back of Floyd until he was taken away by paramedics.

"Nine minutes and 29 seconds, nine minutes and 29 seconds. During this time, George Floyd struggled desperately to breathe. To make enough room in his chest. To breathe. But the force was too much," Schleicher said.

WATCH | Prosecutor highlights video in closing arguments:

Prosecution wraps up closing arguments

1 year ago
Duration 1:11
Prosecutor Steve Schleicher wraps up his closing arguments in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin by telling jurors to believe what they saw in the video of George Floyd's arrest.

'Had to know'

Chauvin continued the pressure on Floyd beyond the point that he had a pulse and "had to know" his actions were killing Floyd, Schleicher said.

Schleicher also stressed to the jury that this case was not about prosecuting the police, pointing out that police officers, including the city's own police chief, testified on the state's behalf that Chauvin's actions were excessive and a violation of police policy.

"He's not on trial for who he was. He's on trial for what he did," he said.

"This is not an anti-police prosecution. The defendant abandoned his values, abandoned the training and killed a man."

Chauvin listens as his defence attorney gives closing arguments. The former officer is charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Floyd. (Court TV/The Associated Press)

He played portions of the bystander video and other footage of Floyd's arrest and dismissed certain defence theories about Floyd's death as "nonsense." 

Schleicher said the defence would have the jury believe that it was just an "amazing coincidence" that Floyd happened to die of heart disease when he was restrained.

"Is that common sense or is that nonsense?" Schleicher asked.

Instead, he suggested jurors listen to the prosecution's medical experts, some of whom said Floyd died as a result of asphyxia. Schleicher said other medical experts explained why he couldn't have died from the factors suggested by the defence.

Schleicher rejected the drug overdose argument and the contention that police were distracted by hostile onlookers and that Floyd suffered possible carbon monoxide poisoning from auto exhaust.

To ignores drugs, medical issues 'defies common sense': defence

But Chauvin's lawyer said the failure of the prosecution to acknowledge that medical problems or drugs played a role "defies medical science, and it defies common sense and reason."

And, Nelson said, the testimony submitted by most of the prosecution's medical experts "flies in the absolute face of reason and common sense. It's astounding."

He noted that the opinions about the cause of death heard from the prosecution's experts countered that of Dr. Andrew Baker, the county medical examiner, who performed the autopsy on Floyd and who was also a witness for the state.

Although Baker did rule Floyd's death a homicide, he said Floyd's heart gave out because of the way police held him down. He listed Floyd's drug use and underlying health problems as contributing factors.

As for the use of force, Nelson argued that the case has to be analyzed from a wider perspective than the nine minutes and 29 seconds focused on by the prosecution. 

WATCH | Don't ignore drugs, prior medical conditions, defence says:

Defence wraps up closing arguments

1 year ago
Duration 1:01
Defence attorney Eric Nelson tells jurors it's 'nonsense' to reject that other factors played a role in the death of George Floyd. Nelson made these comments during his closing arguments in the murder trial of his client, former police officer Derek Chauvin.

A reasonable police officer would, in fact, take into consideration the previous 16 minutes and 59 seconds, including the struggle the police had with Floyd as they attempted unsuccessfully to get him into a squad car, Nelson said.

Nelson argued that while a suspect can be compliant one second, they can be fighting the next and that reasonable police officers continue to assess and re-evaluate such situations.

He said all the evidence shows that Chauvin thought he was following his training, that he was in fact, following both his training and Minneapolis police department policies.

"The totality of the circumstances that were known to a reasonable police officer, in that precise moment the force was used, demonstrates that this was an authorized use of force, as unattractive as it may be. And this is reasonable doubt," Nelson said.

Nelson has also argued that Chauvin was distracted during Floyd's restraint by the increasingly hostile crowd. 

He played portions of bystander video that showed the agitated onlookers shouting at Chauvin to get off Floyd's neck. He said officers may have determined it wasn't safe to render medical aid to Floyd in that environment.

WATCH | Highlights of Chauvin trial:

Chauvin trial highlights and takeaways

1 year ago
Duration 3:36
CBC's Susan Ormiston takes a look back at 14 days of testimony at the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with killing George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died after Chauvin pinned him to the ground by kneeling on his back and neck for about nine minutes while two other officers held him down.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press